Submissions to the state Office of the Insurance Commissioner indicate the third year of insurance sales on Washington Healthplanfinder will mean more insurance carriers and more plan options.
The cost of health insurance could increase 5.4 percent on average for people buying individual coverage next year — the lowest requested increase in Washington state in eight years. And there could be even greater choice for consumers with more insurance companies in the market and more plans proposed for 2016.
But many people will need to choose new plans, as most of the options that were available this year are being substantially changed or canceled.
UnitedHealthcare of Washington, Regence Blue Shield and Health Alliance Northwest are all hoping to sell coverage for the first time through the state’s Washington Healthplanfinder online insurance exchange. That would increase to 13 from 10 the number of insurance companies selling in Healthplanfinder.
If all of the plans are approved, 188 options will be available on the exchange next year, up from 90 this year, the Office of the Insurance Commissioner (OIC) announced Monday.
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“I’m pleased to see the health insurers show an increased interest in the individual market and to see rates continue to come in relatively low,” Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler said in a statement. “We will review each proposed rate and plan change very carefully. It’s on the health insurers to justify any rate change, and they know our review will be thorough and complete.”
The costs to consumers are likely to go down from what was announced Monday, for two reasons.
First, the OIC typically approves lower increases on average than what the insurance companies initially ask for.
Second, the proposed prices right now include a nearly $14-a-month fee that was added to fund the exchange’s budget. For 2015 the fee was about $4 a month, but the state Senate Republicans’ budget proposal for the exchange cuts other funding sources and boosts the assessment fee. Insurance companies have objected to this strategy, and lawmakers including Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, a top Democrat in Senate budget negotiations, don’t expect it will be included in the final budget.
“If the fees go down, the rates will go down,” said Melanie Coon, spokeswoman for Premera Blue Cross. Premera has been the dominant player in the exchange, capturing roughly 40 percent of the 160,000 enrollees by early spring.
People without insurance from an employer or government program can buy individual insurance through the state’s exchange, where they could be eligible for tax breaks that lower the price of coverage, or they can shop outside of the exchange.
Most companies sell plans both inside and outside of the exchange, and four are proposing to sell outside of the exchange only. A total of 17 companies are proposing selling 246 individual health plans, though offerings vary by county.
The OIC has 60 days to review the individual plans. and the Health Benefit Exchange Board, which oversees the exchange, is scheduled to certify the approved plans Aug. 27. All non-exchange plans must be approved by the start of enrollment Nov. 1.
The next round of open enrollment will be the third window of sign-ups under the Affordable Care Act.
When the exchange first launched in 2013 and insurance companies were creating and pricing new plans for the marketplace, “we really didn’t have a lot to go on,” Coon said.
Now Premera and many of the other companies have customer data from 2014 and part of 2015. That’s why Premera, at least, says it’s reworking many of its plans and replacing them with new ones better tailored to customer demands.
“We’re really responding to the member and what they need and want,” Coon said.
In addition to the individual insurance exchange, the state operates Healthplanfinder Business, which sells to employers with 50 or fewer workers. UnitedHealthcare of Washington is offering business coverage for the first time in 2016, joining Kaiser Foundation and Moda Health Plan. The three are proposing 47 plans, with Kaiser covering only two Southwest Washington counties.
“We’re glad to see so many carriers want to participate in the exchange,” said Michael Marchand, spokesman for the Health Benefit Exchange. “It’s positive not just for individual residents, but also for small businesses.”
There are 12 insurance companies proposing 432 health plans for small employers shopping outside of the exchange in what’s called the small group market. Additional plans are available to small businesses through trusts and associations. Businesses can shop for plans year round.